Master Tools and Dies
Perhaps the most distinctive element of the Royal Mint Museum is the collection of some 30,000 master tools and dies. Apart from a handful of medieval coin dies, these run in unbroken sequence from the middle of the 17th century and relate to the coins and medals struck by the Royal Mint since that time.
Dies are used at the final stage of production to impress the design on a coin or medal, while the term master tools encompasses the preliminary tools such as reduction punches, matrices and working punches required to make the dies.
Browse highlights of the master tools and dies collection below.
A handful of medieval dies have survived in the Royal Mint Museum but from the second half of the 17th century an outstanding series of punches and dies has been retained which represents an enormously valuable resource.
Of particular interest is the die for the obverse of the 1658 crown, which clearly displays a prominent crack across the lower half of Cromwell’s bust. It is possible to trace the course of this crack on successive coins, from a small raised feature that appears on early pieces, to the uneven jagged line apparent on later specimens. Another important feature of the die is that it was designed to be housed in a press and as such forms part of that period of transition between the abandonment of making coins using hand-held tools and the full-scale adoption of screw-press technology under Charles II.
The Royal Mint Museum is a museum about how coins are made as well as how coins look. While medieval dies are represented, from the reign of Charles II there was a more systematic approach to retaining tools which finds early expression in a series of portrait punches. Their characteristic shape reveals at a glance how they were made and across a range of denominations the engraver was able to retain a remarkable degree of consistency in the likeness captured.
What is particularly interesting about the portrait punch illustrated here is the area of damage to the front of the bust and that the tool was nevertheless still identified in contemporary inventories as serviceable. One explanation is that, with an engraver spending perhaps as much as a month making such a punch, it may have been more practical to complete the portrait by hand on the die by repairing those missing elements of the neck and drapery than to have to start all over again with a new punch.
The large die illustrated here defied explanation for many years and were it not for a chance discovery of letters in the Birmingham City Archives they may well have remained a mystery. From correspondence during 1819 between the George Rennie, Superintendent of Machinery at the Mint, and Matthew Robinson Boulton, it has been possible to establish that the dies were intended for use in preparing 60oz gold ingots.
They would have formed part of a plan, devised by the famous economist David Ricardo, whereby bullion in relatively large amounts would have taken the place of a circulating coinage of gold. Technical difficulties led to the ingots being made in an altogether more conventional form and all that seems to have remained of the original idea to produce three-inch diameter ingots stamped on both sides with multiple impressions are these two tools from the Mint collection. Rather than the frivolous sports of engravers or engineers, we now know the dies to be important artefacts in the story of Britain's move towards an operational gold standard.
Amongst the most spectacular items in the Museum are the dies for the Waterloo Medal. The idea behind the medal was that it would be presented to the heads of state of Austria, Russia, Prussia and Britain, the victorious allies in the war against Napoleon. The dies display Benedetto Pistrucci’s remarkable skill as an engraver and are regarded by many as a masterpiece of numismatic art.
He laboured over the dies, off and on, for the best part of 30 years but the tragedy of the story was that after all that time they were considered too large to risk hardening, meaning they could not actually be used to strike medals in the way that had originally been intended.
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